The Struggle is Really Beautiful with Cara Harbstreet.

I met Cara through some really amazing ladies that I have done some work for in the past and I knew she was my kind of lady boss when I met her. She was a former college athlete, a defector from Corporate America, and she valued the idea that you don't have to match a certain body type to be happy and healthy. The more I talked with her, the more I realized I wasn't dealing with just any other dietitian, she had a healthy and devoted following on social media, she went out and got the things she wanted (like brand partnering) and didn't really wait for things to just happen for her. I have already learned so much from Cara and I know my readers will too. 


Tell us a bit about your story and how you became a business owner.  


My path to small biz ownership was anything but intentional. I found myself fresh out of my Masters program, working a job I loved with great people. That got turned upside down when they basically said, “We’re dissolving your position, it might be a good idea to start looking.” So….OK then. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I had a good idea of what I didn’t want to do, which was pretty much every corporate job listed in Kansas City when I started looking. Thinking that it might take awhile, I decided to go ahead and form my LLC, you know, just in case. Just in case I could pull in some cash, work with a few clients, scrap together some experience while I was looking. Turns out, once you dip your toe in that pool of entrepreneurship, it’s really, really hard to go back. I worked a couple other corporate jobs while I grew my business on the side and wishing 12 months I was able to turn my focus to my business full time. 


What is a problem in your industry, think broad here as in the health and wellness industry, that no one likes to talk about? The big secret you could call it. What is something that needs to change in your industry? 


Something I really feel like needs to change is this fear and stigma against bodies. The entire wellness industry is based on the concept that you can control your body, ward off disease, look great, feel great, etc. if only you manipulate your body and follow the status quo of what we’ve come to believe about health. The secret is, no one ever died from being fat. Fatness is not the issue, poor health and the comorbidities that contribute to death is the real issue. But we’ve been so conditioned to believe that weight and wellness are inextricably linked. There is enough data out there (both in research and what I’ve observed personally) to believe that is simply false. 


Weight stigma, weight cycling, and the “on a diet, off a diet, just tell me what to eat” approach is really holding a lot of people back from achieving their version of good health. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach (I don’t think this is news to anyone) but it goes a lot deeper than most have been willing to look. 


How have you made your business approach unique amongst your competitors? 


I think on paper, most dietitians look more or less the same. We go to the same schools, do the same internships, take the same test. But I think something that sets me apart is 1. sheer stubbornness and 2. a natural curiosity to question everything. I mean that in the sense of, let’s be stubborn enough to keep trying until we find a solution. Or, why are we still doing things this way if it clearly isn’t working? I think that’s part of why I ended up so unhappy in corporate jobs. I could see opportunities to really make a difference for someone but got bound up by the bureaucracy of health care. I intentionally built my business model to be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of any individual who walks through my door (literally and metaphorically, since I do virtual work as well). If that means we need to spend two hours talking through your game plan for the next week, so be it. If that means you schedule your next session in three days instead of three months, OK cool, I can do that. 


I think I should also point out that I don’t view other private practice dietitians as my competition, I see them as potential partners to collaborate with or refer to. There is no shortage of people out there who need or want support for their health. There is truly enough for everyone and a rising tide lifts all ships. Too corny? I don’t really care, because that’s what I really believe. If this can become the new expectation when someone has a nutrition question or concern, that’s going to come back around to benefit me. I’m all for it. 


How do you partner with large brands like whole foods in a genuine way? How would you suggest someone go about partnering with a brand that wants to? 


There’s been a lot of…um…feelings about dietitians partnering with or receiving sponsorship from brands and companies. But I’m here to tell you, as someone who has been on the receiving end of those partnerships, there’s a moral, ethical, legit way to do it and there’s a totally skeezy, “I feel icky about this but I’ll do it for the money” way to do it. 


At any given point I’ll ask myself, “Would I say this if I wasn’t being compensated?” If the answer if yes, that’s a logical partnership and I’ll move forward with cultivating that relationship. These are products or services I use myself. I love them and feel 100% comfortable recommending them to a friend, family member, or client. They fill a legitimate need, solve a pain point, or otherwise help me support my clients and stay true to my nutrition philosophy. If the answer to that question is “No,” they aren’t a good fit for me. I’m not willing to stake my reputation and ability to rest easy at night in exchange for another paid invoice that month. 


For anyone who wants to partner with brands, as yourself, are you in this to build your influence and gain a big following? Or do you really want to help spread a message or be a part of a community of like-minded folks? I think we can all recognize when we see messages that are less than authentic. You’re the one who knows your brand best, but you also know your audience best. Don’t spam them with stuff they don’t want. True influence is a lot more than using #sponsored or tagging a corporate partner in a post. 


How do you personally manage staying present on social media, build new areas of your business, being a mentor to others in your industry, care for your clients, and still have your own life? What is the key to managing all those things at once? 


Well when you list is all like that, I’m kind of like, “I don’t really know, how do I do all that?” That’s probably my answer: I don’t think about it. I just take those continuous small steps in the direction I want to move. I can do the big thinking stuff but if I think about that too long I get really overwhelmed. It’s like that analysis paralysis, when you’re faced with so much, you overthink it, you can’t make a decision and you can’t move forward. I don’t like feeling stuck so I’m an obsessive list writer. I still keep a day planner where I physically write things down so I don’t forget them. And yeah, I’ve even written things down like “get the mail” or “put gas in the car” just to remind myself that if nothing else, at least I took care of the details that keep life running. 


An important shift in the last year has been setting side time to just BE. I worked in high school, I was a college athlete with a job, I was a dietetic intern with a job. It was sort of my normal to constantly be working, going, doing. And I think that’s a personality thing, to some degree (my dad is the same way). But being busy isn’t the same as being productive and that’s something I had to learn. Eventually I could see that being at the office or in front of my computer for 10 or 12 hours a day meant nothing if I couldn’t unplug and take time for myself. So I intentionally schedule “office” days where I don’t see clients. I have a loose agenda of things I can work on but I just let myself have the option to work if I feel like I want to, and take time away from it if I feel like I need to. 


What does it feel like to go up against an entire world that is convinced dieting is the solution? Have you experienced negativity because of the views that you hold? If there are any, what are some of the meanest things people have said to you in that regard and how did you turn those into constructive statements?


To be honest, it kind of feels like a little subculture within dietetics. I jokingly used the Amy Poehler Mean Girls Mom Meme on RDN Day where I was like, “I’m not a normal dietitian, I’m a *wink* cool dietitian.” And it was funny, but at the same time, I don’t want to contribute to an US vs. THEM mentality. I hold respect for people who have different views but at the same time, I do want to make efforts to have hard conversations and share the reasons why I believe what I do. I see it as, “Hey, I’m here with this really awesome way to not feel so insane around food and it feels really REALLY good. Want a piece? Not now? OK well I’ll be here chillin’, if you change your mind come on over because it’s pretty cool and I’ll be here for you.” It’s hard to challenge diet culture when it’s all around us. So it takes time for people to reach that point where they question or look for an alternative. 


I don’t think I’ve experienced outright negativity but there is a lot of questioning or just writing it off. And the mean things aren’t said to me, they’re said to or among the people who likely could benefit from a non-diet, weight neutral approach. Thin privilege is a real thing in this world. Weight bias is a real thing. And I say this with the acknowledgement that I move through this life with an element of privilege afforded to me by the fact that my body is a socially accepted size. So the most hurtful things that are said or thought are things I have to be aware of but would never be arrogant enough to assume I know what that feels like to experience. The best I can do is keep an open mind, ask questions to try to learn and understand and say, “I hear you” when my clients open up and tell me what they struggle with. 


Tell me about finding community. You post often about others that teach the same things you do, was that community essential in your success in some way? 


Community is huge! I can’t brag enough on the other badass ladies that have paved the road for me to get to where I am. I’m a member of a couple of different mastermind groups and it’s been beyond helpful. First, you get the support and accountability from people that are right there alongside you. They know what it’s like to sacrifice and fight and claw your way to making your business (and life) better. But second, it’s a way to learn in the real world. Nothing in my education or formal training prepared me to be a small business owner. And even if it had, it likely wouldn’t have matched my version. If you can find your tribe of people you immediately gain access to the shared wisdom and support that can only come from people who know what it’s like to be doing what you’re trying to do. That’s invaluable. 


Where do you go for inspiration? 


I read and I run. Running thoughts to me are kind of like shower thoughts…I mean, I still come up with some great ideas in the shower but running is almost like an act of meditation. I don’t listen to music, I just kind of zone out and let myself think. I also love to learn new stuff, so if I’m feeling like I’m in a funk I’ll step out of my norm and try to find something new, like a book about something I know almost nothing enough, or watch a documentary or go to an event to try to see the world a different way. Experiences like that still connect to what I do every day and can be a good way to break the routine of “let’s talk about food all day every day.”


If you could go back, what is the one thing you would do differently in creating your business? 


So cliche. But I’m gonna say it. I don’t think I would change anything. It was hard but it wasn’t impossible. I make mistakes but it wasn’t a total disaster. And it took a long time (I thought) but it could have taken a lot longer. I’m probably still in that infatuation stage, like when you’re so in love with something you can’t see it’s faults. Ask me again in a couple years. 


What was your lowest point in becoming a business owner? The time that sticks out in your mind that you needed to remember to fuel your fire? How did it prepare you for the success that was to come? 


I’m pretty fired up about it regardless, but if I ever need to stoke it up a little bit, I just think back to the things we (my husband and I) had to sacrifice to make it work. At the time when my position got dissolved, we were planning our wedding (AKA hemorrhaging money) and just bought a house. I was scared. That was probably the only time I thought, “OK this is going to suck but I might have to swallow my pride and ask family for help.” Thank god for my husband. He was like, “Babe, this is going to be fine, if this is what you want to be doing we will make it work.” We didn’t take a honeymoon. He kept working a second job. We tried not to be dumb with our money. And I kind of get emotional thinking about that kind of support. I mean don’t get me wrong, I believed in it because I knew what it looked like. He believed in it because he trusts me and wants me to be happy. If I say it can be, he knows I can make it happen and he doesn’t doubt. And that feels awesome. So that’s what I like to think about when I have a real ass kicker day. 


What is your greatest accomplishment thus far? What are you excited about? 


Oh man. I have so many things I’m proud of I can’t really narrow it down. I think every little success that a client has is a huge accomplishment and I’m really thankful I get to play a part in that. It’s such a good feeling to witness someone having their lightbulb moment and feel empowered enough to make a change or try something out of their comfort zone. I love that I have my own office and creative space, I love that I’ve connected with so many awesome people. There’s so much more to come, I’m working on virtual courses and group coaching and other ways of making this message more accessible to more people so stay turned for more on that. On a side note, I’m super excited to take a vacation next month - the first one in about five years that wasn’t for work or family!